English View June 3, 2004

The case for Key

Three seasons have now passed since Robert Key was taken aside by Alec Stewart at the PCA Awards Dinner, and given the Sergeant-Major's pep-talk

Robert Key - 1000 runs already this season © Getty Images

Three seasons have now passed since Robert Key was taken aside by Alec Stewart at the PCA Awards Dinner, and given the Sergeant-Major's pep-talk. "You could play for England," was the gist of Stewart's advice, "but you need to buck your ideas up first." It turns out that Stewart was only half-right. In 2002 and early 2003, Key did indeed play for England. The bucking-up of those ideas, however, has had to wait until now.

After reaching 1000 first-class runs by the second day of June, Key's return to international cricket is a given. It has to be, not just for the weight of the runs he has scored, but for the precedent that England's selectors set last year, when his Kent team-mate Ed Smith was rewarded for a similar purple patch that included five hundreds in six innings. For the sake of county cricket, the cream of the competition has to be skimmed for England duty, especially if it has been skimmed before on less persuasive evidence. Otherwise, where is the incentive to better oneself?

Key and Smith share not only a county, but also a Test average in the late teens. In Smith's case, however, it appears we have seen the best he has to offer. His 64 on debut was a proud and gutsy innings that played a major hand in England's victory, but a return of 23 runs in his next four innings was a more telling statistic. For such an elegant and upright player, his weakness outside off stump was all too glaring by the end of that series.

Style and statistics, on the other hand, have never been the best yardsticks by which to judge Key. When he made his debut against India in 2002, he brought with him the roundest waistline since Mike Gatting ate his last cheese-and-pickle sandwich, a crouching spring-loaded stance, and a backlift that wafted towards fourth slip. When a player's flaws are this obvious, it is only fair that he should be judged by his hidden depths.

By and large, that has indeed been the case. Aside from Michael Vaughan, not many England batsmen emerged with credit from last winter's Ashes, but Key was one of them, for all that he finished bottom by a distance in the series averages (141 runs @ 17.62). It was his refusal to be cowed by Australia's reputation that really caught the eye. Like Mike Atherton before him, he found that a smile was the best medicine for the incessant sledging, while he responded to a single-figured debut by top-scoring with 47 in the Brett Lee-inspired rout that followed at Perth.

Admittedly, he was suckered in that innings by Damien Martyn, of all bowlers, and by Steve Waugh later in the series, but a weakness against part-time medium-pace isn't exactly a career-threatening ailment. Of far greater relevance was Key's 174 not out against Australia A at Hobart, where he batted for seven hours to save the match against an attack that included Brad Williams, Ashley Noffke and Nathan Hauritz - players he could meet again in the none-too-distant future.

Key himself has admitted that he learned more about the game in that three-month tour than in the whole of his career. And so, after a lean season in 2003, he took himself back to Australia for another month, where he visited Justin Langer's batting coach and worked on the fitness side of his game. "I'll never be the most athletic-looking bloke," he says, "but I'm a hell of a lot fitter than I was at 19 or 20." Not bad for a fat lad, as a future team-mate of his might say.

That future has been complicated in the short term by the astonishing emergence of Andrew Strauss, who seized his chance so emphatically at Lord's that one England captain was sent spinning off into retirement, while another scooted down the order to fill the gap at No. 4. But the reverberations of Nasser Hussain's retirement are unlikely to end in a hurry. England have had a vital cog ripped out of their middle-order engine room, and there is sure to be a lot of clanking and banging while the problem is sorted out.

For the time being, the selectors have a debt of loyalty to pay to Paul Collingwood, for his uncomplaining understudy duties over the past 12 months. But if the prolific Trescothick-Vaughan opening partnership - which had admittedly been misfiring badly in the Caribbean - can be sacrificed so readily, it may soon be time for a whole new alliance at the top of the order.

Given time, an opening partnership of Key and Strauss, and a middle order of Butcher, Vaughan, Thorpe, Trescothick, Flintoff and Geraint Jones, could be among the most formidable combinations England can muster. In the four Tests that are coming up against West Indies, England would be wise to take the gamble. For in South Africa this winter, and at home to the Aussies next summer, there won't be any time for experiments.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. His English View will appear here every Thursday.